Decisions, Schools, A New School Board

By Sue Hagmeier of Portland, Oregon. Sue was elected to the Portland School Board in 1995 and re-elected in 1999.

Respect for history and respect for community go hand in hand. The current school administration and board majority appear to begin and end with the view that nothing happened until they came on board. They seem unwilling either to look at the work that has gone before or to undertake the hard work needed to truly weigh the realities involved in providing accessible educational programs now and for generations to come. Oh, and it's interesting to see them take credit for the sale of Washington High, the background work for which was done before they thought of running for the board.

Campaigning for second terms, three board members seemed to be running against all those who had served before them. "First budget without cuts in 13 years." First, it's not the first, and second, this budget involves cuts. Ask any principal, if you can get them to talk; they've been warned that dissent equals insubordination.

The current Portland Public Schools administration proposed and implemented sweeping changes in how we use our school buildings and how we "configure" educational programs in our city. Specifically, in some neighborhoods, a "reconfiguration" is taking place, doing away with elementary and middle schools and creating K-8 schools in some of the buildings while closing others.

With the concurrence of a board majority, the public was bypassed in developing the plan; in fact, the public was not even presented with evidence that implementing the plan would make things better. We have not seen evidence that the "reconfiguration" plan is a good idea and we have not seen evidence that appropriate, non-cherry-picked research supports the plan as either an educational or a financial initiative.

In explaining reconfiguration from elementary and middle schools to K-8 schools, the loss of educational opportunities for middle schoolers in K-8 schools has been glossed over and a case has not been made that something about K-8 schools makes up for that loss. (There will not be sufficient numbers of middle school kids in the K-8s to support a full middle school curriculum.) Similarly, safety and other issues involved in putting small children in a big kids' building and vice versa have not been discussed in public. We haven't asked young families whether nearby school closures will affect their choices to stay in the city or go elsewhere. We certainly aren't talking about whether, or how much, "reconfiguration" will reinforce segregation by race and income in the district. The only way to keep the downside of school closures out of the discussion was to bypass both public process and informed expert opinion.

It should be noted that there were two extensive studies of district facilities undertaken while I was on the school board, the Audit Implementation Steering Committee, which took a closer look at the KPMG audit results, and the Best Use of Facilities Task Force. Both involved a broad spectrum of community involvement and expertise as well as long term commitment to the community. Both started with the assumption that major closures and divestment would be called for, and both ended with the conclusion that while adjustments would always be needed, and certain select properties were indeed surplus, dramatic closures and sell-offs would not be good stewardship. Both of these considered each school or property's value, as an educational resource and as a community or neighborhood asset and anchor, as well as the cost of owning and operating it or potential proceeds from selling it. A great deal of attention was paid to the role of both neighborhood schools and opt-in programs in making the city an attractive place for families to live. A Long Range Facilities Plan was adopted in 2002.

This time, as before, they started with an assumption that major closures were needed; however, this time, unlike before, facts and alternative perspectives were not allowed to get in the way.

One of the arguments the current school board and administration use in support of school closures is that while there has been a drop in district enrollment since 1970 (about 40%), there has not, allegedly, been a corresponding drop in the district's physical "footprint," (6% according to them).

This is the list of closures, relocations and other physical plant adjustments I could come up with out of my head from the last 40 years or so:

Adams HS (Closed, then Whitaker MS, then closed again)
Applegate
Ball
Brooklyn (became Winterhaven, now proposed to close)
Burlington
Clarendon (Closing end of this school year.)
Collins View
Columbia (Now Special Ed site for HS students)
Couch (Metropolitan Learning Center shared space, then Couch School closed and the building became MLC)
Edwards (houses some special ed programs now)
Elliott (became Tubman MS)
Failing
Foster (MS special ed site)
Fulton Park
Glenhaven
Green Thumb
Holladay Park
Jackson HS (Closed for years, reopened as Jackson MS)
Kellogg (Closing end of this school year.)
Kennedy
Kenton
Kerns
Linnton
Markham Annex
Meek (Vocational Village moved there from Glenhaven Site, Meek Elementary closed)
Monroe HS (Formerly Girls Polytechnic, merged with Washington, then both closed. Housed offices and several programs including the Monroe teen parent program, now DaVinci MS.)
Mt. Tabor Annex
Multnomah
Normandale
Portland Night High School (Doesn't have its own building; housed at Grant after hours, now to be "merged" with Voc. Village at Meek; unclear whether it will remain a distinct program.)
Rice
Rieke (Closed for awhile, reopened)
Rose City Park (Closing end of this school year.)
Sacajawea (now a district Head Start site)
Smith
Sylvan (Closed and leased for many years, now housing 6th grade due to crowding at West Sylvan.)
Terwilliger
Vocational Village (Powell Blvd. site closed, moved to Glenhaven, then to Meek)
Washington HS (Became Child Service Center, now closed and sold.)
Whitaker ("Old Whitaker" on Columbia Blvd.) Closed, then used for itinerant staff offices, then Turnaround School, then Whitaker Lakeside, now leased to NAYA Native American youth program/school)
Wilcox
Youngson

New buildings:
BESC
Forest Park
Rosa Parks

The enrollment peak in the district followed roughly the kindergarten classes of 1957 - 1959, graduating in 1970 - 1972. During that time, despite a wave of building, schools were crowded, with "portables" installed at many sites. (Some schools had their own peaks earlier, before some of that building took place.) Many of the new buildings were small K-5 schools, with grades 6-8 kept at the larger, older schools, partly because of the expense of building Shop (Industrial Arts) and Home Economics facilities, but also partly because there was a growing recognition that middle school aged students needed more than a self-contained classroom could provide. The district has not really been organized around K-8 schools since the mid '50s, but, until the eighties, programs for grades 6-8 were based on self-contained classrooms with some pullouts and team teaching. This was before special education mandates, before there were libraries in any but high schools, before computer labs and before classes for English Language Learners.

The initial drop in enrollment was precipitous, as baby-boomers had fewer kids, later, and it led to closing ten schools in 1980. (School board members needed police escorts home after the vote.) Five high schools were built during the baby boom years, 1954 – 1967, two on the west side and three on the east side. Four high schools have been closed since, one on the west side and three on the east side.

The conversion to a system based on three levels, K-5, Middle School and High School, took place in the eighties, following a nationwide trend toward Middle Schools and away from both K-8 models and K-6, Junior High (7-9) models. In Portland, this conversion also was a part of our desegregation plan.

As you can see from the list above, not only have quite a few schools been closed over the years, but several have closed and then reopened as needs changed. Good stewardship of this public resource must provide for future as well as current needs, and that means preserving some flexibility; can you imagine the cost to reacquire land and rebuild neighborhood schools? And yes, recent school closures are, right now, influencing the housing decisions of young families.

Many parents and teachers see the departing superintendent as a climber, who used Portland to advance her own career at the expense of our community. Many also think that this school board traded research and deliberation for drama, for being "the deciders." The question is: Is this simply reckless, or is there another agenda? Many school properties are very attractive as development opportunities. So are many parks and other public amenities. But when they are sold they are gone, now and forever. It is our responsibility to future generations to weigh the long-term value of the resource, including the part that's priceless, when considering any divestment of public property.

The district once adopted a strategic plan (still listed in Policies as 0.10.010-P Strategic Plan. See PPS: Policies) that listed this as a core value: "Involving stakeholders in decision-making leads to better outcomes." I may be old-fashioned, but I still believe that. Here's another core value from the same strategic plan: "Adult behavior is a powerful teacher for young people."

While "getting it done" is important, it should not be at the expense of getting it right. There will be a change in the board majority in July. I hope that this new majority will usher in an era of respect for public engagement, respect for professional expertise, and dedication to the long-term vitality of our neighborhoods and city.

Comments

  • peoplesvoice (unverified)
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    Sue is absolutely correct. Over the years there has been a loss of institutional memory, abuse and misuse of "research," adherence to the national Bush agenda for education, and an attitude of disdain towards meaningful community input (seeing it mostly as an unfortunate thing to try to circumvent). The facilities issue is just one of many, but one that will be very important to watch this year since they have begun yet another facilities "review." So far, the statements from the District, some Board members, and others have been riddled with obvious errors and hidden slants--like the 40% quote that is blatantly false and yet repeatedly used. These decisions are essentially irreversible, and so we must participate vigorously.

  • Dan Keeton (unverified)
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    I do see some logic in your point that once a school is closed and sold off it will be lost forever. It seems to me you sort of skip over the fact that the cost of keeping a school mothballed is not nil, and, as Suze Orman will tell you, it doesn't always make sense to pay storage on something you may never need.

    It might indeed cost a great deal to build new schools downstream (if they are ever required), but you have to offset that increased cost with closure savings which accrue over many years. If you won’t need a school building for 20 or 30 years, it can’t make financial sense to put it in storage or run it a fraction of capacity while it gradually crumbles to dust.

    However, I doubt the intense desire to prevent even a single school from closing is at all grounded in a fiscal argument. Nor is it about what research has shown to be the best model. It is really about people wanting small, local schools because that seems to make sense to them. You don't need a town hall to learn that (although it is a good place to network prior to the next election.).

    A community with small, local schools is my wish too. However, it is an expensive wish, and to make it a reality you have to find a way to pay for it, not just advocate into an echo chamber.

    Vicki Phillips might have been called a climber (though you cleverly placed that criticism in someone else’s mouth), but she did take on important work that would prevent a larger financial crisis from visiting Portland down the road. She deserves to be thanked for that.

    Finding more revenue really isn't the calling of the superintendent; that's a job for a politician. And there is work to be done there. For the first time in many years Oregon has some money and a legislature more sympathetic to increasing education funding.

    I hope our new school board members realize they have a role to play in Salem. They are, after all, politicians with real work to do. Hassling and micromanaging superintendents until they run off and join the circus, is the traditional role of a school board. But it doesn't have to be. School board members are free to actually make things better.

  • Emily (unverified)
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    Vicki Phillips may have accomplished many good things, but it's too soon to tell if the school reconfiguration plan is one of them. We have embarked on a complicated, ambitious, poorly-justified scheme to close schools and convert others to k-8 or other formats, without a real sense of whether these changes will in fact meet the educational or financial objectives of PPS, and without assessing the risks and negative trade-offs.

    Dan's point that Vicki Phillips took important steps during her tenure to improve the district's financial health is well-taken, although it has never been sufficienty explained by Phillips or staff how the current reconfiguration helps save money. No plans for closed buildings have been discussed (will the be sold? will they be kept in inventory at ongoing expense?), and the costs of the reconfiguration have been vague at best. These considerations, in addition to the educational benefits (which have also not been satisfactorily justified), are crucial to evaluating the merits of the reconfiguration plan.

    PPS and the city of Portland are off on a road trip, but with no map, no clear destination, and a gas guage that may or may not work. School board members are indeed free to make things better, but my main concern is that we have a board majority that has abdicated its oversight and analysis role and has instead wielded a mean rubber stamp.

  • Duke (unverified)
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    Thanks for the history lesson Sue. It does help to reframe the district's current physical and fiscal situation for many of the new Portlanders (like me). An apt metaphor to describe Portland's situation is that the district appears to be poised to sell of its "seed corn", while simulataneously planning to appeal to voters for more seeds. I question whether such an appeal will be successful.

    Emily's point about future uses of the district's "surplus" buildings is an interesting one. Judging from this week's Willamette Week editorial (http://www.wweek.com/editorial/3328/9006/), they don't plan to rent them out to any of the district's or state's charter schools. Maybe $200,000 is a drop in the bucket when looking at such large scale problems, but's that often how buckets get filled up: one drop at a time. Renting would seem to be one way to both preserve future uses and defray mothballing costs, but maybe I'm being too logical.

  • Bruce (unverified)
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    Duke:

    I, like you, am probably being too logical to assume that renting is the way to go to protect our capital investments and allow flexibility for future needs and changing demographics.

    My logic would also dictate that it's beyond ludicrous that PPS would close and sell schools, only to turn around and ask the voters to build new ones, as Cathy Mincberg has proposed.

    I agree that closed PPS schools should be rented or leased, but not long-term leases as was done with Kenton Elementary in the Jefferson cluster.

    The school board approved leasing the Kenton building for 20 years to a competing private religious high school whose target student population is the same as the neighborhood's public high school. This not only further drained (and will continue to drain) enrollment from Jefferson (PPS's smallest population) but the school board approved this lease at the very time they "claimed" to be making decisions for Jefferson in order to raise its enrollment.

    And now this ever-so-thoughtful school board can't figure out where to house the former Kenton students for grades 6-8, even though they themselves voted to close elementary schools, eliminate middle schools and impose K-8 in the Jefferson cluster.

    All one has to do, however, is examine the relationship between PPS, Innovate Partnerships and The Real Estate Trust. It's all about profits for developers and builders baby, all about profits for developers and builders.

  • (Show?)

    Emily, Duke, and Bruce: Could you folks please some secondary identifier to your names, so we don't confuse you with all the other people named Emily, Duke, and Bruce?

    A last name would be awesome, but it could just as easily be something else, like "Bruce X" or "Bruce from Beaverton" of "Big Bruce" or something like that.

  • Miles (unverified)
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    This was an excellent essay, Sue. Thank you for framing the issue for us.

    As for the savings claimed by Dan and others that might be generated by closing schools, that still remains to be seen. All of the teachers and most of the staff are transferred to other schools after a closure, so the only savings are operating and maintenance, and usually a principle and a vice-principal. It doesn't take all that many students transferring out of PPS after a closure to completely negate those savings. That's the analysis that Vicki Phillips and the school board never did during this last round.

    Sue, one other role that is missing in this debate is that of the press. The local media generally report things at a very lazy, superficial level (e.g., the 40% versus 6% stat). How can we push the media to dig more deeply into these stories -- to ask the hard questions, look at the analysis (if it exists), and do some independent reporting?

    Thanks.

  • Oscar W. (unverified)
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    Miles:

    One reporter who has no problem delving into the real deal is Beth Slovak from WW. Good luck with the education reporters from the O or Portland Tribune; they generally take the PPS spin and simply regurgitate it.

  • Terry (unverified)
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    Sue Hagmeier for school board in 2009! That's Trudy Sargent's seat, isn't it?

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    Sue, you criticize the current board for failing to do their homework, but I think your essay could be criticized the same way.

    1) You say the research on K-8 was "cherry picked" implying that the actual research results are less clear. Are they? I did a very brief Google search, and there is extensive research on K-8 configurations.

    My own brief read of an NAESP report (as just one example) contradicts your point on middle school curricula and cites six other studies which show academic improvement.

    Is your reading different? Does the research indicate it is on balance helpful, harmful, or neutral?

    2) You imply that the district majority misstates the decline in the footpring ("6% according to them") but instead of looking this up--I presume school square footage is easily available from the district--you just provide a long list of schools.

    This is a nice rhetorical device, but basically useless to a reader. That many schools out of how many total? Are the ones that are re-purposed to, say, special ed still part of the footprint?

    3) You write: Many also think that this school board traded research and deliberation for drama, for being "the deciders." The question is: Is this simply reckless, or is there another agenda? Many school properties are very attractive as development opportunities.

    I just don't understand what you're saying here, other than once again implying dark sinister motives to the current board.

    Equating "drama" with being "the deciders" is just a badly chosen metaphor (if they wanted "drama" then lots of public meetings is surely one way to get it.)

    But the second part concerns me a lot more--why would you think that a volunteer board has any interest in selling school properties to private entities? Are there developers on the board? Is there some conflict of interest we should know about?

    The final statement in that paragraph is, in my opinion, simply wrong: It is our responsibility to future generations to weigh the long-term value of the resource, including the part that's priceless, when considering any divestment of public property.

    This encourages the district to hold onto properties simply out of nostalgia, not hard headed educational and financial realities.

    It is our responsibility to ensure the long term excellence and financial stability of the Portland Public Schools. Physical properties are distinctly secondary and in service of the higher purpose of maintaining an high quality educational system.

  • Larry W. (unverified)
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    Paul:

    You say "--why would you think that a volunteer board has any interest in selling school properties to private entities? Are there developers on the board? Is there some conflict of interest we should know about?"

    The same reason the volunteer board sold Jefferson students and families down the river for Gates grant dollars; and that entire process was and is riddled with conflicts of interest.

    Do the research on the Real Estate Trust and Innovation Partnerships; check out Walsh Construction. Go back quite a ways, then you decide if there was/is a conflict of interest.

  • Hawthorne (unverified)
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    Larry,

    Can you be more specific about your concerns re Innovation Partnership and the Real Estate Trust? It looks like they have been trying to help?

  • blueteeth (unverified)
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    Dan Keeton says:

    I do see some logic in your point that once a school is closed and sold off it will be lost forever. It seems to me you sort of skip over the fact that the cost of keeping a school mothballed is not nil, and, as Suze Orman will tell you, it doesn't always make sense to pay storage on something you may never need.

    trueblue responds: This assumes that the schools should have been closed in the first place. In most cases--Rose City, Smith, Hollyrood, Edwards, etc., the closures have been bad mistakes. What price have we paid so that Vicki Phillips could climb the next rung on her career ladder?

    DK: It might indeed cost a great deal to build new schools downstream (if they are ever required), but you have to offset that increased cost with closure savings which accrue over many years.

    trueblue: PPS has never put forward any reliable figures for so-called "closure savings." Let's take Rose City for example. How much have is "saved" when PPS senselessly rips the beating heart out of community with no meaningful dialogue and no defensible justification. This will cost far, far more than it saves.

    DK: However, I doubt the intense desire to prevent even a single school from closing is at all grounded in a fiscal argument. Nor is it about what research has shown to be the best model. It is really about people wanting small, local schools because that seems to make sense to them. You don't need a town hall to learn that (although it is a good place to network prior to the next election.).

    trueblue: Phillips new boss, the Gates Foundation, has thoroughly documented the educational advantages of small schools. Let's not discuss this out of context. For the most part, we were talking about smaller elementary schools. With the available research, is there any reasonable doubt about the superiority of smaller schools for K-5? I'll answer for you--No.

    DK: A community with small, local schools is my wish too. However, it is an expensive wish, and to make it a reality you have to find a way to pay for it, not just advocate into an echo chamber.

    trueblue: Actually, some of the small schools closed in the recent round of "reconfigurations" were some of the most efficient, cost-effective schools in the entire system. PPS and Phillips were forced to concede (by virtue of their constantly shifting rationales) that they could demonstrate no savings from closures and reconfiguration. Figures they have bandied about recently are pure fiction. The ultimate backstop rationale was nothing more sophisticated than "400-600" is better. Why? Because they said so.

    DK: Vicki Phillips might have been called a climber (though you cleverly placed that criticism in someone else’s mouth), but she did take on important work that would prevent a larger financial crisis from visiting Portland down the road. She deserves to be thanked for that.

    trueblue: Let's simplify. Vicki Phillips was a climber, first and foremost, a climber. She worked hard to make headlines to get that next big job. She does not deserve credit for preventing a larger financial crisis. Most of the folks I know had to hold their nose to vote for the local option tax. That vote came despite Phillips shennanigans, not because of them. Her courting of the business community cannot be doubted. Personally, I'm not greatly impressed when corporations like tough talk, but don't contribute their fair share of taxes (read recent articles on th $10 minimum tax).

    DK: I hope our new school board members realize they have a role to play in Salem. They are, after all, politicians with real work to do. Hassling and micromanaging superintendents until they run off and join the circus, is the traditional role of a school board. But it doesn't have to be. School board members are free to actually make things better.

    trueblue says: I think we do now have a 4-3 board majority who will make things better. Hassling and micromanaging Supers sounds bad, but not nearly as bad as allowing Phillips to jam through her poorly thought out "plan" without requiring her to adequately justify and defend the proposed changes. I'm hopeful though that our new Board majority will select a quality Super and things will indeed start to get better. I will agree though that Salem must play a role.

  • raul (unverified)
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    I hate having to tell this story again- but I will because it needs to be told.

    Winterhaven is the Math/Science focus school housed in the old Brooklyn School. We were told that the school would be closed/relocated to the Lents neighborhood to a facility that was currently vacant. The reason we were given was that the facility was too expensive to maintain- it is an older school, and for many years maintenance has been neglected.

    You may argue any point you wish regarding this closure. My main point of this story is how we were left to respond to the school board.

    Parents were invited to a meeting to learn about this closure- as the decision was already made. We were not allowed to respond to the PR people from PPS who were sent to equally shame and mollify us. Here is how we were to submit or concerns:

    We were grouped at tables and given poster paper and colored ink pens. We were at that point encouraged to make a poster reflecting our concerns.

    Do you think VP hung our posters on her office walls? Please! And could there be any better way to insult anyones intelligence?

    Many of us felt that they wanted our school for the next McMenamins or whatever.

  • Dan Keeton (unverified)
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    Trueblue says: "I'll answer for you"

    Dan says: That tells you everything you need to know.

  • trueblue (unverified)
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    Dan, at last we agree! ; )

  • trueblue (unverified)
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    Raul describes PPS's communication tactics regarding the Winterhaven closure:

    Parents were invited to a meeting to learn about this closure- as the decision was already made. We were not allowed to respond to the PR people from PPS who were sent to equally shame and mollify us. Here is how we were to submit or concerns:

    We were grouped at tables and given poster paper and colored ink pens. We were at that point encouraged to make a poster reflecting our concerns.

    trueblue: Raul, thank you for sharing this specific example of PPS's tactics for communicating school closure decisions to the community. What you describe is completely unacceptable. I witnessed many similar occurrences during the "reconfiguration" ambush last year. This blatant disrepect for the community helps explain why the former Board majority now finds itself in the minority. Phillips may have gotten a "promotion" but she also got out just ahead of the posse. If anything good came out of the last year or two, it is the unifying effect PPS tactics have had on the larger community. I believe the grass roots movement embodied by Ruth Adkins is ready to lead us into a period of very positive change.

  • Dan Keeton (unverified)
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    The PPS/Phillips plan may have been ham fisted in its approach (I don't find anecdotal arguments to be very reliable and certainly not mere allusions to them e.g. "I witnessed many similar occurrences . . ."). However, there remains the objective reality that PPS schools are failing.

    I wish Ruth Adkins well, but doubt she is any less interested in "climbing" her own ladder than Vicki Phillips. My view is the board needs a well organized, forceful and protracted effort that results in the state legislature reforming education funding. Tell me the “new majority’s” plan for this; I haven't heard it.

    Showing up with posters at an ad hoc rally in Salem every once in a while isn't going to engage the legislature in solving the larger financial problem. It does makes for a nice "grass roots" activity though.

    So tell me this Vickie haters: once the PPS consolidation plan is consigned to the trash heap, what then? What is your next step? Have you thought that far ahead?

    If Trueblue is an indication of the sort of people who got Adkins elected, then I fear our new majority will find it impossible to do anything. I suspect Adkin’s supporters think "grass roots" means THEY get to veto anything that don’t like no matter what is best for the community.

    Adkins is in for a rough ride if she plans on working for any meaningful changes to our schools. Talking about problems is easy and fun (that’s process). Solving them is hard and boring (those are results).

  • Zarwen (unverified)
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    Dan,

    You may not find "anecdotal arguments to be very reliable," but I am here to vouch for every single word Raul wrote. I was at that same meeting, and it happened exactly the way he described it. There are literally hundreds of other witnesses.

    "However, there remains the objective reality that PPS schools are failing." Not all of them! There were/are many highly successful schools in the District which are already gone or will cease to exist next year because of the "reconfigurations." Smith and Edwards are just two examples. If VP had had her way, Rieke and Hollyrood would have joined them. If the goal is to help failing schools, how does closing successful schools accomplish that???

    As far as planning "what's next," I don't know what Ruth has in mind, but it's too bad Michele Schultz did not also win. Her ideas about the next steps were clearly outlined on her website.

    One thing I agree with you about: Ruth will have an uphill battle. Many writers are expressing great confidence about a "new majority" that will right all of VP's wrongs. I doubt that the three "old" members of this "new" majority will be so quick to turn the clock back and revisit issues that were already decided by Board action in the past. I do hope, however, that they will abandon arbitrary standards like "400-600" and base ALL decisions on what best serves children and families.

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